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Taiwanese Executives in China

Challenges 'Greater than You Can Imagine'


What type of Taiwanese person can survive in a local Chinese company? Two businessmen share their views on the life-altering decision to work in China.



Challenges 'Greater than You Can Imagine'

By Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 370 )

"Just two years ago, Lenovo Group was still a typical local Chinese enterprise. If it were not for the company’s acquisition of IBM’s personal computer division, a move that transformed it immediately into the world’s third largest manufacturer of personal computers, even Chinese people educated abroad would rarely choose to work there.

Nowadays, though, employees from India and the United States can be seen passing by in groups wherever one looks around Lenovo’s new conference building. Still, Su Xiufeng remains the only Taiwanese at Lenovo China.

As director of Lenovo Group’s global application system, Su is charged with constructing Lenovo’s internal SAP (Systems, Applications, and Products) system, which in the wake of the company’s acquisition of IBM will allow Lenovo’s information technology systems to support its global operations. When he first arrived in China in 2000, Su worked for PreVision Technology, a subsidiary of Taiwan’s Primax Electronics. He moved to another Taiwanese company, Apache Footwear, in 2004, and eventually joined Lenovo in 2006.

At present, the number of Taiwanese information technology personnel in China already exceeds demand. Consequently, with a growing number of Taiwanese companies continuing to lower salaries for personnel assigned to positions overseas, the idea of joining an expanding Chinese enterprise is becoming an inescapable thought to many Taiwanese executives in China.

China’s financial markets, which opened at the end of 2006, have become a battleground for a new wave of Taiwanese businesspeople seeking positions in China. As major international banks are already collaborating with China’s state-run banks, no great difference exists between working for an international bank and working for a domestic Chinese bank. Those Taiwanese that have experience working for international banks are especially in demand.

China Merchants Bank’s Jerry Sung is one such example. As general manager of the strategy and development department of the bank’s credit card center, Sung manages credit card operations in eight cities in eastern China, including Shanghai, Nanjing and Suzhou. Song worked for IBM when he first arrived in China in 1998. He was hired by Visa in 2000 and then started at China Merchants Bank in 2007.

Sung and Su each turned thirty-nine this year. Song was thirty when he first went to Beijing and Su was thirty-two when he arrived in Dongguan. Both have married local Chinese women. Though it is commonly said that Taiwanese should remain low-key when working for Chinese companies, the two businessmen have been willing to share their frank impressions and observations with CommonWealth Magazine's readers, in their own words.

| Su Xiufeng (Lenovo Group)

Not Forceful? Then Forget about Management in China

I came to Lenovo because I felt it would become an internationalized company. I felt the salary was very competitive, even better than that offered by Taiwanese companies. For people with special talents, they are not stingy when it comes to giving you good remuneration. What’s more, Lenovo is constantly acquiring the latest, most advanced technology. I’ve heard that what we were doing last year, Taiwan didn’t have people doing until March of this year. Lenovo’s speed will force you to run forward.

Spartan Management

However, it took a lot of effort for me to acclimate to Lenovo’s corporate culture. The reason Lenovo was able to rise up over the last twenty years was that it relied on a spartan, military style of management. It strives for speed. The logic of their thinking is that the boss directs everything. When bosses in Taiwan talk about things, they will tell you the reasons and the direction. However, this is harder in Chinese companies. For the most part, they use an authoritative approach. You do what those at the top tell you to do. You don’t ask why they want you to do it that way. Their abilities to deliberate are weaker, but their execution is very strong.

China Merchants Bank’s Jerry Sung notes that the advantage Taiwanese people have in China is their professionalism and work ethic.

My boss feels I’m too nice to my subordinates, but I can’t figure out when I’m supposed to bang on the table at them. Here, if you’re not tough, the boss will feel you are too gentle and your style of leadership is not forceful enough. It’s like when you’re in China, if you queue up to get on a bus or train, then you will be the last person aboard.

In China, people don’t have to wait until forty to become a mid- to high-level executive. They already hold these positions by the time they are thirty-something. The cycle of advancement is short here, and people rise fast. There are ten directors in our department and one of these is not even thirty. In Taiwan, you would be doing well if you were able to become manager at this age.

Speaking purely about the work, there is great potential for development. However, many Taiwanese employees are apprehensive about being replaced. Actually it’s the same at international companies. Businesses are practical. They use you because there is value in using you. If a company can’t allow you to grow, you won’t be able to stay longer than three years at the most. You’ll burn out quickly.

No Sense of Security

I have been at Lenovo for this last year and have learned quite a few new things, because the company has developed quickly. My team has learned as well. But as for how long I’ll be able to stay here, I don’t really know how to answer that question. I myself don’t feel much of a sense of security. In fact, it’s not just me. The Chinese returning from overseas studies don’t feel secure either. They’re local people, but what does that count for? They’re more expensive than other people too. Why would a company be bound to hire you?

So as far as young people are concerned, I feel that you should come to China only if you absolutely must and you are highly determined. After all, the differences between this environment and Taiwan are very big. It would be impossible for you to seclude yourself and work alone. The size of the challenge might possibly be much greater than you can imagine.

| Jerry Sung (China Merchants Bank)

Professional Skills are Their Greatest Concern

Moving from an international company to a state-run Chinese company requires a period of acclimation. Chinese companies are relatively more concerned about standards of behavior and place greater emphasis on rules. International companies are very straightforward. Whatever it is, just send an email and that’s enough. Here, on the other hand, you need to report to all levels of management.

People here are very careful when they speak. The concept of hierarchy runs very deep. They must consider propriety when speaking to their bosses. It’s all the more this way if you come from Taiwan. You absolutely can’t discuss political taboos. When discussing things, you absolutely must not say anything touching on ""differences,"" like, ""Why would you all think that?"" or, ""We always do it this way."" You can’t show there is a gap there and you certainly can’t show your superiority.

Expertise Wins Out in the End

Taiwanese that want to come over must have at least five years or more of experience. Companies here care a great deal whether you possess expertise or not. Speaking in general, the advantage Taiwanese people have here is their professionalism and work ethic.

If we look solely at the credit card sector, Taiwanese personnel have almost no advantage, because Taiwan doesn’t have any banks holding 10 million cards in their hands at the moment. This is all the more the case because the sector we operate in is many dozens of times larger than that in Taiwan. The character of each city is different as well.

So, in terms of both sales and marketing, the first wave of people that came over has already learned everything there is to learn. However, when it comes to credit information and risk control, there should still be an advantage. As for providing services to small and medium enterprises, China still comes up blank. Another is personal wealth management. Taiwanese remain quite competitive in this sector.

Although everyone feels that the remuneration we people from outside receive is better and that maybe one day we will be replaced by local people, in reality the salaries of Chinese mid- to high-level executives are not low at all. Furthermore, local people receive benefits from the three social welfare funds of social insurance, old-age insurance, and the housing fund. Even medical insurance differs according to what organization you work for. We, however, get none of these benefits. In terms of total cost, the gap has not been that great for a long time already. So in the end, it’s expertise that wins out.

Su Xiufeng, the only Taiwanese executive at Lenovo China, believes there is great potential for development within Chinese companies, but that it is necessary to acclimate to China’s corporate culture.

The Stepping Stone of ‘China Experience’

We always hear the media say the whole world has its eyes on China. But if you really go look at all the international companies, for sure, China is an important battlefield, but they have definitely not focused on China alone.

Look at Visa and IBM. There is no doubt they have grown very fast in China, but they haven’t abandoned any other markets because of this. So my point is, from the perspective of an individual, China is by no means the only place where you can develop. If your English is good enough and your expertise strong enough, then you might do better to go to Vietnam or Russia. There is great room for development in those places, and the compensation is higher.

For more senior-level positions at international companies, a ""China experience"" is important indeed. I suggest that young Taiwanese would do best by first entering China with an international firm. Then, after gaining work experience there, go to a large Chinese enterprise with development potential. Moreover, you need to make it to at least a certain level; otherwise, the climb up is going to be long, slow and hard.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman